The Bruno Lage era is upon us, and with it comes a totally different style of play. The 3-4-3 has long reigned at Molineux since Nuno took charge, but with Lage replacing his fellow countryman, it looks like the 4-4-2 might be back in style. No, not the Sam Allardyce, lump it to the big man and hope for the best 4-4-2, but a more fluid system, one that might well see an exciting season ahead at Molineux.
Out of possession, the 4-4-2 is a pretty straightforward concept to understand, so it’s when a Lage side has the ball that I want to focus on. Namely, what can we expect when it comes to positions, roles, and how those work in conjunction with the squad currently available to Lage. Let’s start with the fullbacks.
Despite his stellar performances at wing back, we have zero recent data to suggest how Jonny operates as a right-footed left back in a four, and as we’ll get onto shortly, these positions are key in Lage’s system. Funnily enough the Portuguese did deploy Nuno Tavares as a left-footed right back at the beginning and end of his tenure at Benfica, but this was infrequent and came with its own inherent issues. Instead, Lage relied on Alex Grimaldo as his left back, and Andre Almeida as his right back.
So, what was expected of them going forward? Simply put, overlaps and crosses. Plenty of crosses. It’s at this point I want to credit @KyleWainwright9 on Twitter, who put together a really nice video displaying the sort of movement Lage’s side used going forward. I want to try and build on some of what Kyle pointed out, but I’d encourage you all to check that video out for some really good context.
I’d argue we’ve currently got more of an issue on the right side than the left with our full back options. Rayan Ait-Nouri should be signed, and the Frenchman was built for the sort of role that would allow him space to roam into and cross. Nelson Semedo, however, is a more conservative full back. The Portuguese doesn’t drift into attacking areas naturally, preferring to pick up the ball deeper and recycle possession when given the opportunity. Whilst it means Wolves are safer while in possession, in Lage’s system it would mean a lack of balance. For the system to work, there needs to be equal threat from the left and right, Semedo’s attacking instincts will need to be worked on over the summer. So we know the full backs need to push forward and cross, but how do they have the space in front of them?
To begin with, let’s take a look at Benfica’s “wide” midfielders under Lage. Whilst both Rafa Silva and Pizzi’s starting positions were out wide, it was more centrally that they did most of their work. It’s here that we really need to define the difference between a position and a role. Yes, their starting positions were out wide, but their roles were different to that of normal wingers. They didn’t hug the touchline, instead they both drifted inside – both on and off the ball. This meant they were flooding central areas and either creating overloads, or dragging their full backs into central positions – creating space for Grimaldo and Almeida to exploit. Here are their heatmaps from the 2019/2020 season:
Caption: Rafa’s heatmap looks more like that of an AM than a LM
Caption: Pizzi’s heatmap is slightly more concentrated to the wing, but still involves a lot of central actions
For a bit of added context, I do think Pizzi’s heatmap being more concentrated on the right is slightly misleading. He’s right-footed playing on the right side, meaning carrying the ball more centrally goes against his instincts, nonetheless he did it, and – directly or indirectly – it led to Almeida grabbing four assists from right back that season. Rafa’s movement meant Grimaldo contributed six of his own on the left.
There are countless examples of Lage’s Benfica having the ball in central areas, either at CB or CM, and instead of Rafa or Pizzi staying wide to receive the ball, they came inside. Take this screenshot from their win over Gil Vicente for example:
Pizzi has already taken up space in a central area, dragging Gil Vicente’s LB into a narrow position, the ball is circulated out wide to Almeida who crosses for Pizzi. His header eventually goes wide, but it’s a good example of the type of space created for the right back in Lage’s system.
This does however beg the question, how will this work with two wingers in Adama Traore and Pedro Neto who are *extremely* high usage and do most of their work with the ball, rather than without it? Not only are they high usage, they’re more traditional – both are likely to go outside of their man rather than coming inside, and whilst Neto is more penetrative when it comes to getting into the box, neither are the type to drift centrally off the ball to arrive on the end of a cross as Pizzi and Rafa were able to under Lage.
I’m confident Neto would be able to adapt to a role that somewhat works within Lage’s 4-4-2. It might well mean he plays off the right, picking up the ball in a deeper position and carrying the ball, dragging men with him and opening up space before laying off to an onrushing Semedo who can then cross. Neto has a bad habit of driving with his head firmly down, but the raw tools are there for a player who can develop the skills to interchange with other players more frequently and to a higher level.
Adama is a bigger issue because he’s so unique. His shooting is often wayward, and the numbers reflect that from last season. Pizzi in this system scored 18 times for Benfica in 19/20, but goal scoring instincts are difficult to coach, and Adama shows little interest in scoring goals, instead preferring the provider role.
Caption: Adama doesn’t take many shots, and those he does take aren’t high quality
It’s what makes me think the Adama rumours this summer are only going to ramp up as the club look to shop him and find a player who’s ready-made for the Lage system. From a pure fan’s standpoint I hate the idea because I love Adama, but from an analytical view it does make sense. The passages of play Lage likes to establish require speed of thought as much as they do speed of play. It seems illogical to say considering he’s the quickest player on the planet, but Adama is a player who likes to slow things down to then speed things up when it suits him. Whether that’s to the detriment of the side as a whole remains to be seen.
It does however open the door to a redemption arc for Daniel Podence. The Portuguese is more technically gifted than Adama, has comfortably played on the left previously, and naturally drifts inside to link with the centre forward. He’s frustrating to watch at times, but having watched Lage’s Benfica back to write this piece, one of the running themes was Rafa picking up the ball and driving inside. When he didn’t do that, he passed into either Haris Seferovic, Raul de Tomas or Carlos Vinicius and followed his pass, often receiving the ball back and either getting a shot off, or spreading the play to a teammate on the less congested right. Podence might well fail in that role ultimately, but at the very least he’s in the profile of player the club could look at.
I’m aware this has been quite a long read, so I’ll just touch upon the two sixes in the middle of the park very briefly. I fell into the trap of immediately assuming these would be heavily defensive players, focused on off-ball actions such as tackles, interceptions, pressures and covering for marauding full backs. What I neglected to recognise was that a certain Adel Taarabt played a prominent role as one of Lage’s sixes. Taarabt is – and always has been – a skilful, progressive and flashy player, not in the typical mould of a six.
The Moroccan was tasked with breaking the lines from deep with his passing in Lage’s system. Sometimes this found a man in or around Zone 14, other times this was the pass to find Almeida or Grimaldo in an advanced position. I think Vitinha is perfectly suited to this role, we’ve seen he’s not an attacking midfielder, and his performances at the U21 Euros for Portugal make me think he’s ready to dictate for a Premier League side – taking up the option on him should be an absolute no brainer for Wolves.
As for the centre forwards I’d once again encourage you to watch Kyle’s video for some great insight as to what we should expect. What I will say is that they’ll be expected to link play at times and run the channels within the penalty area at others. Their reward should be a good wedge of chances in central areas, something that’s been missing for a while.
If you’ve stuck around this long then fair play, thanks for taking the time to read all of that!
Any feedback is appreciated – @dbutleranalys on Twitter.